A jack of all trades,
Often a master of none;
No time to focus.
With great expectation, I eagerly waited for the opening of Ramen Koika, getting regular updates from my friends who work at St. Paul’s hospital.
The owners were taking their time with the space, appointing it with beautiful artwork and dark wood. For me it was good sign, since it showed attention to detail.
There was a soft open and special deal to get the neighborhood acquainted with the place. I waited so that they could work out the kinks from their food and service.
There was a small fuss made about the chefs manning the kitchen not being Japanese but I don’t put too much stock on ethnicity impacting a person’s ability to cook well. To be honest, I often find it a lazy argument. If you have passion for food, and take the time to hone and learn your craft, one can cook anything well. Chefs Alex Tung and Alex Chen prove that.
Also the last time I checked, Chef Gordon Ramsey is not French yet he can prepare world class French cuisine. In short, if a chef serves something subpar, they just suck at cooking and focusing on the details to make a dish wonderful; it has nothing to do with their cultural background.
With this in mind, I and a few fellow food enthusiasts descended onto Koika. Upon opening the menu I spotted some red flags. Koika had a giant menu with 9 ramens and 2 different soups, chicken and pork (presumably tonkotsu). I think the most concerning thing for me was the 2 soup broths. It’s hard to tailor and simmer ONE soup that’s balanced yet intensely flavourful but to try to do two is very ambitious.
I went with the fusion King Ramen served with their pork hard boiled broth, found in the Smoky Wok Cuisine section of the menu. I call it fusion because stir frying the toppings in a wok is decidedly a Chinese technique which can lead very tasty results.
Unfortunately the wok created smokiness or “Wok Hei” was very strong and overwhelming. Coupled with a weak one note pork broth that couldn’t match the intensity of the "Wok Hei", my King Ramen was too monotone and dull in taste even with all the ingredients served. Adding to the problem was the poor execution of the noodles. They didn’t have any kansui taste, were too much like Chinese noodles and were soft despite ordering the “hard” option.
The overall consensus at the table was the ramens served at Ramen Koika were not up to par. Overall, all the various dishes ordered had similar execution issues I experienced. The soup was bland and didn’t have a concentrated flavor one would expect from a well prepared broth. The noodles were not prepared as ordered, arriving soft without a chewy texture.
However the home made gyozas, verified by the distinct ridging displayed on each dumpling, were tasty.
Fast forward a few weeks, I was reading up on ramen when I came across the Champon Ramen from the coastal city of Nagasaki. This unique style of ramen is old school, like late 1800s, fusion of Chinese and Japanese techniques. Created by a Chinese shop owner, he fried up pork and vegetables, and placed them on top of a bowl of noodles he had cooked directly in the broth.
Over the years, seafood was added to this Sino-Japanese concoction evolving into a hallmark dish for the Japanese port city.
Ring any bells? It did for me and I immediately went onto the Ramen Koika website. There it was, Champon Ramen. As far as I was aware, this Davie street ramenya is the only one serving this specialty in the city.
I was actually hopeful given my initial experience at Ramen Koika. Factoring in that some time had passed enabling the kitchen staff to refine their execution, I thought, "Perhaps, they could hit this out of the park and create a great version of this seafood ramen".
Well my second visit yielded mixed results. First the improvements, the service was much more friendly and attentive. The “Wok Hei” was dialed back significantly to a much more balanced level. The noodles were tastier and took on the flavor of the soup, so perhaps per tradition the staff is cooking the noodles directly in the broth?
However, they were still past al dente even though I ordered hard. The soup had a bit more character as some of the fried peppers and starch from the noodles imparted their flavor to the liquid. Unfortunately, the soup was still quite one dimensional and not very impactful.
The biggest issue was the seafood. The mussels were bland and gritty. While eating the Champon ramen, I got the occasional mouthful that had a jarring sandiness to them. I’m not sure if it came from the scallops or the mussels but it didn’t create an enjoyable experience.
The prawns were cooked well except they had their shells on. I would have liked it if the staff had peeled and de-veined the crustaceans to help make the dish easier and less messy to eat.
My follow-up visit was a bit better than my first but overall it was still very lackluster. The kitchen is missing the mark on executing key components, the noodles and soup, well. With the standard bearers of awesome ramen in Vancouver only a 15 minute stroll northwest of Koika, I think next time I want ramen I'm just going to keep on walking.